Sri Lanka’s former wartime defence minister Gotabaya Rajapaksa will be the country’s next president, after his opponent conceded defeat in a tightly contested election.
The candidate for Sri Lanka’s ruling UNP party, Sajith Premadasa, on Sunday accepted defeat in the poll held on Saturday and congratulated his rival.
“It is my privilege to honour the decision of the people and congratulate Gotabaya Rajapaksa on his election as the seventh president of Sri Lanka,” Premadasa said in a statement.
With half the votes counted, Rajapaksa led with 50.7%, while his main rival Premadasa had 43.8%, the election commission said. Rajapaksa’s party claimed victory in a statement which thanked voters for a peaceful election.
The election took place seven months after the deadly Easter Sunday attacks, which saw self-radicalised Islamist extremists bomb hotels and churches, killing over 250 people and throwing Sri Lanka into a state of emergency.
Early results showed Rajapaksa, 70, the candidate for the SLPP, the Sinhalese-Buddhist nationalist party, leading with 48.2% of the vote.
A member of one of Sri Lanka’s most powerful political families, he served as defence minister when his brother, Mahinda Rajapaksa, was president for a decade from 2005. The pair oversaw the end of Sri Lanka’s brutal 26-year-long civil war.
His main opponent, Sajith Premadasa, a minister in the current United National party (UNP) government was on 45.3% in the vote count. Premadasa, 52, had strong support in minority Tamil areas and a poor showing in larger Sinhalese constituencies, Rajapaksa’s core support base.
Though most electoral constituency votes had not been declared and the electoral commission had not officially announced the final result, Rajapaksa’s representatives declared him the winner.
“It is a clear win. We envisaged it. We are very happy that Gota will be the next president. He will be sworn in tomorrow or the day after,” said his spokesman, Keheliya Rambukwella.
The election saw a turnout of 80%, one of the largest in Sri Lanka’s recent history. It was also relatively peaceful, despite being marred by incidents including the shooting of buses carrying Muslim voters in the north-east, which were stopped by a roadblock and fired at by attackers. There were no casualties.
The election had been hotly contested between the two candidates. Following the instability of the current UNP government, which was plagued by inefficiency and infighting and faced criticism for failing to heed warnings of the Easter Sunday attacks, Rajapaksa had run on a platform of promising security for Sri Lanka, as well as boosting the stagnant economy.
Premadasa, the son of former president Ranasinghe Premadasa, who was assassinated by Tamil separatists in 1993, was more of an unknown for Sri Lankan voters. He had campaigned on improving the lives of everyday people.
The return of a Rajapaksa to power could have major implications for human rights and freedom of expression in Sri Lanka. Under Mahinda Rajapaksa’s presidency, there was a repression of dissent, with journalists and campaigners regularly arrested and attacked, while the courts and the police were controlled by the government.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa has also explicitly said he would repeal Sri Lanka’s commitment to a UN human rights agenda for reconciliation and accountability for atrocities committed in the civil war, describing it as “illegal”.
He has also said he intends to put his brother forward for prime minister at the general elections next year, paving the way for the family to take a stranglehold on power in Sri Lanka.
The election commission has said it expects results to be clear by late Sunday and a new president to be sworn in within a day.